Interview By Jeth Rollins Odom
Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas of Chicago’s Alinea, named the best restaurant in the country, dropped by Seattle last week to promote their new book Life, on the Line. I was scheduled to do the interview but could not make it. I asked my buddy (and cooking pal) Jethro to fill in for him. Because Jethro is a more of a human being than a food blogger, a freewheeling conversation ensued, and they discussed everything from their book, hunting, and music to their newest projects about to launch in Chicago: a restaurant called Next, and its companion bar, Aviary.
Nick Kokonas: So, Jethro’s not a food writer, he’s subbing for a food writer.
Grant Achatz: Thank god.
NK: So you know what that means? Actual intelligent questions that we haven’t had.
So, any questions you don’t want to answer, just say “fuck you”, and whatever.
NK: You’re going to get like, twelve “fuck you’s”.
GA: Ah, come on…
NK to GA: By the way, I finally read that interview. Joe Satriani? That’s where you went with that?
GA: The guy can play guitar, man.
NK: Yeah, in ’84.
Nick, you were in a band. What instrument did you play?
NK: Guitar and keyboards.
What kind of style?
NK: I went to college in the late 80s/early 90s, so you’re looking at the Cure/REM thing, but you’re also looking at Firehose, more edgy stuff like their song “Brave Captain“. Standard issue of that era, but a lot of fun.
Concerning the book, I really liked how in the preface you start off with this really disturbing imagery of Grant peeling out his inner throat, which cuts to him giving this great speech crediting all the people he knows, and then the first chapter starts with him making Jello as a child.
NK: The reason we start the book out that way is that you know the outcome. I mean, there’s a picture of him on the cover. If he’s dead, this sucks, right? So, because he’s not dead, you know the outcome, so it’s important to get that up front, so here’s the highlight of the book, you get that the first second, and then we show you how we got there.
Why did you choose to write an autobiography while you’re both in your mid-30s?
NK: That’s his question, it’s not my autobiography.
What do you mean? You’re in there too.
NK: The only reason I’m in there too is that I’m the Everyman, so I give the opposite viewpoint, you know what I mean? I’m like the diner guy, y’know? The thing is that he can’t talk about his own food from the third person, right? I mean you can, but it’s kind of weird and awkward that way, so that’s why we did that.
GA: It’s a really good story, I think for one. First and foremost, I think what we experienced, and I say ‘we’ because he’s the one who really pushed the whole thing along, in terms of seeking out treatment. You know, people go through life, and they find themselves in situations of adversity whether it be medically related or something else. They don’t realize that the second, third, fourth answer is not the best one.
If we had listened to any of those four doctors that not only told me that I had to do this, but when we point blank would ask them if there was another option, they would look right at you and say “No”. Clearly they knew that trial at the University of Chicago was happening. For me I think it was important to tell that part of the story so that people realize doctors aren’t God. Just like carpenters, plumbers and car mechanics, there are good ones and there are bad ones. And if you’re getting an answer you don’t really like, go get another one. And another one and another one. Whose idea was it to switch the fonts in the book to show which of you was speaking? That was pretty clever.
NK: Yeah, the idea was we wanted to have two voices in that part of the book. Some people hate it. It’s neither here nor there. We just wanted to keep the two voices. Some of the publishers didn’t want to do that – it’s a memoir. It’s weird to have two voices in a memoir. Grant, how’s your tongue?
GA: Depends on the day. The taste is back.
Would you say 100%?
GA: Yeah. The ability to evaluate flavor is back 100%. There are certain fluctuations in sensitivity from the side effects of radiation that will prevent me from eating certain things on some days. So most of the time it’s completely fine.
Any flavors you cannot taste or taste differently than before?
GA: I don’t think so. There are certain things that I avoid. Like, really spicy food.
So no Sriracha.
GA: No. But I never really liked spicy food, so it’s really no departure for me. The analogy I like to use is you go out and get a really bad sunburn, and you go to take a shower the next morning and turn up the hot water – you know, it hurts.
How many dishes did you create during that period?
GA: Seventy-five to one hundred.
Dude! You’re like Beethoven, dude.
No, he was deaf and wrote the Fifth, right? Have you tasted any of those dishes since you’ve gotten your sense of taste back?
NK: That’s a good question. Maybe they suck! [laughter]
GA: I don’t think that I have. But I can tell you how they’ve changed. Like during treatment there were certain things that – OK so one thing, when the taste started coming back, the first thing that I could discern was Sweet. So I think the food got sweeter. Because the one thing that blew me away about the absence of being able to perceive flavor was that I didn’t want to eat. There was no point. You never really think about it. Maybe occasionally when you get the flu, and you were a kid and your mom would give you chicken noodle soup, and you would sit there and you were all congested and you’d take a slurp and it would taste just like water, because you couldn’t smell. For me, it became very, very clear that getting pleasure from eating is something that everyone takes for granted.
I figure it’s the only thing besides sex that involves all five senses.
GA: Probably. [laughter]
NK: Mm. I’m processing… In the book, you paint a very detailed picture of the process you went through creating Alinea. It seemed like you gave aspiring chefs and owners a blueprint on how to get it done.
NK: That was the idea.
So it was intentional.
NK: Oh yeah. I read some – I won’t name names – but I’ve read some books on the restaurant industry. When we were going to do this, I went out and got some source material. Some famous books, too. They don’t put numbers in. So, it’s kinda like, what use is that? They keep it vague. I put in our actual investor updates, the actual ones. I also started to write the typical TV script of “It’s really hard to open a restaurant, and the contractor pisses you off” – everyone knows that, everyone’s seen it on a million TV shows. When I went back to the source material and read all of our investor emails, I thought “why would I change this?” Again, some people love that, some people don’t, because it takes you into a different time frame in the book, and it gets a little technical and stuff. But anyone who has run a business or is at all entrepreneurial loves it because they’re like “Oh look! Actual information.” How important is the restaurant itself to the dining experience that Grant creates?
NK: It’s huge. What we do is create an environment where the second you walk in you have this 40 foot long hallway with nobody there to greet you. It’s a forced perspective, an inverted cathedral. And all that is really purposeful to set you up and make you uneasy, so that when you are greeted, through the next set of doors, and everything is pleasant and orderly, you create tension and relieve it. And that’s what a great meal does, great theater does, great art does, great music does, and we do that very consciously. What’s happening with Next and Aviary?
NK: Next is going to be really cool. But it’s food, so we shouldn’t screw it up, right? Even though we’re going to change every three months, for instance we’re starting with Paris 1906 to start. Had the test dinner for that last night – eight course meal – it was awesome. It’s really more modern than you’d think it would be for classic French food. And then we’re going to do Thai food after that next. And then Aviary, what we’re going to do with cocktails…
Yeah, I’ve seen the big egg-shaped ice – very cool.
NK: Yeah, Martin’s done really cool service work for it too. You know, I was worried that the drinks would veer too far into like, you know, weirdness, and they’re not. They’re just really delicious versions. You’re drinking them, you’re not eating them. People thought that the amuse bouche cocktail course at Alinea was a preview of Aviary, and it’s not. If you order a Hurricane, you don’t want a little hollowed out..
NK: You know what I’m saying? For $14 you want to drink a hurricane. You don’t want a bite of Hurricane.
A sphere. [laughter]
NK: Yeah – it’s kind of silly, right?
So obviously you’re having food there as well.
NK: Yes. The limitation they set for themselves is based more off service and they didn’t want to have to silver the tables or anything like that. More of a lounge scene with small tables. So it’s all going to be finger food, international finger food, but very progressive, modern finger foods.
How did opening Next compare to opening Alinea? Were things easier the second time around?
NK: No, I was naive enough to think it would be.
A whole new set of challenges.
NK: Yeah, and a lot of things that went smoothly last time I didn’t put a lot of focus on this time because I assumed that they would go well, and they didn’t this time. So wherever you don’t focus your attention, that’s what falls apart. Every time. I was naive enough to think “Ah, it will be all right”, and it’s been eight months of frustration. Grant, what are your key cookbooks?
GA: Not so many now, because of the Internet to be honest with you. But I still have The French Laundry cookbook, the 1997 elBulli cookbook. A couple of them aren’t cookbooks at all. I have this amazing Japanese floral arranging book. It just says “Japanese Floral Arranging” on the cover. You know, just the aesthetics of the book. So a lot of times it’s not just literally trying to come up with your recipes, but trying to get inspiration as well. Nick, you’re a philosophy guy. Molecular Gastronomy, Modernist Cuisine, New Cookery – all, one, or none?
NK: None. It’s all bullshit, right? Apparently, no one writes about food. Molecular Gastronomy does not refer to chefs manipulating the molecules. Every single food writer, barring like three or four, thinks that when they talk about modern gastronomy that “chefs are manipulating things at the molecular level” – that’s just stupid. They’re doing gross chemistry just like chefs have been doing forever.
Nathan Myhrvold [author of Modernist Cuisine] is trying to build a food printer.
NK: I was about to say, with the exception perhaps of what Nathan does over there, where they’re actually manipulating molecules. But, when Herve This wrote about it, what he meant as molecular was the sense of an artistic movement where you take different things, pull them apart, and presented them in a molecular, quote unquote, fashion that were like different flavors on a plate. Flavors apart, but not literally down to the atom. No Atomic Cookery, you know what I mean? Atomic Cookery. That’s it! I just coined that. Don’t steal that – we’re going past molecular straight to the atom.
Can we expect that at Alinea? [laughter]
NK: Yeah, Atomic Cookery. Molecular Gastronomy’s bullshit. Modernist Cuisine is actually pretty good.
It’s pretty good, but shouldn’t it be Postmodernist Cuisine, really? I haven’t read Dr. Myhrvold’s argument for it yet.
NK: I have. There’s an argument to be made. I think it’s a fairly good distinction. What they termed The French Laundry food – New International – I think that kinda works. What do you think of the Modernist Cuisine cookbook?
NK: It’s pretty mind blowing. We produced the Alinea book, which is basically one of their five volumes, and we did that ourselves, much like they did. Actually I talked with Nathan when he embarked on this. I told him all about our printing, but I had no idea what he was going to try to do. I mean, I’m not a chef. For me it’s really useful because they break it down in a very logical way, and the photography is absolutely stunning. I was just over there and we had fourteen courses in an hour, and it was delicious, and it was good, too, it was as good as any restaurant I’ve had. So, really, kudos to him. I think there’s a general feeling in the restaurant industry – I don’t really consider myself part of the industry, even though I kind of am, obviously – “Hey, he’s got a lot money, he’s got a lot time, he just has to hire the right people, of course he can do this, but we can’t.” And it’s just a terrible excuse. What they don’t realize is that you don’t get smart, ambitious and good taste because you have a bunch of money. It’s the other way around. And he’s passionately curious and all those things. For instance, I’m friends with Ruhlman but I thought Ruhlman’s review of the book in the New York Times was really smug. [Nick looks at my iPhone, which is recording the conversation] Ruhlman, if you’re listening, it was really smug. He sat on the fence perfectly with that review. Have you been to Seattle before?
NK: No, there’s two major cities I’ve never been to before: Seattle and Portland. My wife has some cousins who live here – Latvians – but none of my friends dispersed here, you know?
See, now you just mentioned your wife, who’s Latvian, and I’m like “Oh yeah, Dagmara, she had the Latvian soup in the book” and it’s weird…
NK: Right! Weird!
Your wife must be weirded out.
NK: She’s not paying attention to this stuff.
So people aren’t stopping her.
NK: No, but you know what’s weird though now if you google “Nick Kokonas” by the time you get to the ‘s’ the autofill says ‘Nick Kokonas wife’. I don’t know what that means exactly. What’s the inference?
They just want to see what she looks like. “Hot or not”?
NK: Right. It cracked me up. I tried to explain to her and she was like “Nah, I’m not going to do that”. Grant, in the book, you tell the story about making a bet with your co-worker DJ that some olives you’re about to puree are pit free. The bet was if there was a pit in there you would always have to keep it on you to show him or you would owe him ten dollars. You lost the bet. So, do you have the olive pit on you?
GA: I do. [searches wallet]
NK: You’re the first one to ask that. We thought everyone would ask that.
GA: Holy shit, it’s not in here.
NK: We’re calling DJ otherwise. You’ll owe DJ ten bucks!
GA: That would really suck…Ah! Here it is.
Grant Produces The Olive Pit
Grant, what did you hunt for when you went hunting?
GA: You mean in my childhood?
GA: Most of the time it was pheasant, but I did a good amount of deer hunting as well.
Did you use a rifle?
GA: Everything from bow, shotgun, to rifle.
Have you ever served something that you’ve killed in your restaurant?
GA: Not in the restaurant, no, but personally, yeah.
NK: Our food runner has, right?
GA: No…we have a food runner…the Health Department’s going to come in and shut us down if I tell this story…
Well, just tell me to fuck off… [laughter]
GA: We have a food runner whose family has property in Indiana and whenever we have a VIP list coming that we really want to try and blow away, we’ll have him go back home and get a pheasant, or woodcock or something like that and bring it in.
So sounds like you haven’t been hunting in a while.
NK: We did.
GA: Oh yeah. That’s the last time – we did!
NK: When’s the last time you shot a gun before that?
GA: Ten years, fifteen years.
NK: That’s a funny story. So I took him pheasant hunting and the first bird gets up and he’s borrowing a gun of mine, a shotgun, and he’s goes ‘pft’ ‘pft’ and it starts flying away and I just went ‘pft’ and drop it. He thinks that I messed with his gun.
GA: So, there’s a backstory to this.
NK: The backstory is you couldn’t hit the side of a barn for the first half hour.
GA: No! The backstory to this is that – I will fully admit I am a redneck. So, Mr. Kokonas here likes to hunt in the [Grant adopts a fake accent] “European way”.
NK: Walking through the field, with dogs and all that.
GA: When me and my old man would go hunting, we would have 12 gauge semi-automatics with 3 inch chambers. [laughter] And we would take the plug out so we could get six shells in there! So if you missed in the first two shots, you had four more in there.
Just keep shootin’ son…
Life, on the Line: A Chef’s Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat
By Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas
Hardcover, 400 pages
List price: $27.50